In all the years I lived and worked in Austin, I don’t think that any fact of life annoyed me more than gridlock traffic. After a few years, I resigned myself to the fact that traffic jams were going to happen on the major thoroughfares, and there was nothing I could do about that. To lessen my own annoyance, I started hatching “alternate routes,” and over the course of a decade, learned how to get just about anywhere in Travis County without ever driving on I-35 or MoPac.
The main thing that bothered me about those traffic jams, and the thing that aggravates me to this day, is how preventable most of them are. You know the scene. You’re driving down the highway and all three lanes screech to a halt. After going about five miles at three inches a minute, you discover that someone has a blown radiator on the opposite side of the road, and everyone has been simply slamming on their brakes to “rubberneck,” and see if they can figure out what’s going on.
Throw a few emergency vehicles with their lights flashing into the mix, and it doesn’t matter if the accident is on your side of the highway, or on the other side of a divided median. You’re going to be sitting in traffic for the next six hours or so.
In those endless hours of sitting in traffic and contemplating, I came up with one basic question that haunts me to this day, eight years after leaving “city life” behind.
How many accidents could have been prevented if people wouldn’t rubberneck?
Almost without fail, when there is an accident on one side of I-35 on the bridge over Lady Bird Lake, there will be an accident on the other side. And I always wondered how many of those accidents were the result of a driver paying more attention to what was happening on the other side of the road than they were to what was happening in their own lane of traffic.
To a lesser degree, I see the same thing on our roads here in Lockhart. Except it might be worse, because we have not only the problem of people becoming nosy the second they see flashing lights, but the added problem of no divided streets, and people not being quite sure how to handle oncoming emergency vehicle.
Case in point: I was driving to an accident scene last week, and witnessed not one, but three near misses, each of which could have been prevented easily enough, if people would just pay attention.
First, as I was preparing to turn on Highway 183 to go to the crash scene, I heard sirens, and saw flashing lights come up behind me. State traffic code dictates that, when we are approached by an approved emergency vehicle using audible and visible warnings (lights and sirens), we should pull as far to the right as possible, stop, and remain stopped until the vehicle has passed us.
With an ambulance heading toward me on 183 and a police car coming up behind me on San Antonio, I did exactly that. I was stunned to see a driver at the intersection decide to go ahead and pull through the intersection, presumably to get out of the path of the ambulance. The driver, to the best of my observation, didn’t see the oncoming police car until it almost hit her.
When the light changed and I got back underway, I drove to the accident sight, and as is the procedure I’ve discussed with the powers that be, engaged my hazard lights as I slowed down to pull in and park my car. Evidently, the driver behind me was so busy watching the police officer take emergency cones out of his car and set them on the road to direct traffic to the inside lane, she didn’t notice that I’d slowed down and turned on my flashers until the officer started yelling at her – when she almost rear ended me.
Moments later, a third driver had to slam on the brakes and veer sharply to his left, almost swerving into oncoming traffic himself. It appeared the driver was so busy surveying the accident scene, he didn’t realize the fire truck with the flashing lights the lane in front of him was, in fact, not moving.
The first situation, I talked over with a few police and emergency service friends. After all, our nature, when we see an emergency vehicle coming, is to try to get out of the way. And if you CAN get out of the way, by all means, do. Just do it carefully.
But if for some reason you can’t get out of the way, or if you’re already stopped at a light at an intersection, just stay where you are. If you’re stopped, chances are oncoming traffic is also stopped, and the emergency vehicle can go around you and get through. As was very nearly the case that afternoon, someone trying to “help,” very nearly made the situation worse (if the officer in had hit her, the intersection then would have blocked access for other emergency vehicles).
Perhaps more importantly than that though, drivers need to remember the task at hand. If you see a car at the side of the road, and police, fire trucks and ambulances are already there, they most likely have the situation under control. Chances are, the biggest thing you can do to help is just keep on driving. Chances also are that your desire to “just see what’s going on,” is going to make it worse.
The last thing anyone on an accident scene needs is to have to worry about rubberneckers causing another accident or, God forbid, injuring one of emergency responders working at the scene. I know a paramedic who was seriously injured in a parked ambulance while rendering aid to a patient who’d just been involved in a car accident. The driver of the car that hit the ambulance was so busy looking at the wreck that she didn’t even see the ambulance in front of her. This happens, more often than we’d probably like to think about.
So please, do your police, firemen, EMS and the other drivers on the road a favor. When you see an accident, let the emergency responders do their job. Just do your own job, and pay attention to your driving.
The chances are good that whatever accident they are working on, doesn’t concern you in the slightest. Being nosy about it is one of the quickest ways I can think of to make it your own problem.